The coalition government's decision to increase the budget of the Department for International Development (DFID) has been presented as a progressive counterpoint to the massive cuts in other government departments. The Tories have praised much of DfID’s work under New Labour and have committed to increase the amount of aid given, saying it is “motivated by a shared determination to erode the terrible inequalities of opportunity that we see around the world today.”
But many of the so-called beneficiaries of British aid do not see it as progressive at all, arguing that it is based on the same free market principles as the rest of the coalition’s policies and is doing more harm than good.
Between 2003 and 2008, India received £1 billion of British aid. At the beginning of 2009 DfID released its new country strategy for India, which commits to giving another £850 million until 2011, making it DFID's largest bilateral programme. India is the world's fourth largest economy, based on purchasing power, and has qualified as a middle-income country since 2007. India is now also an aid donor in its own right.
In a book and DVD of short films and transcribed interviews by Richard Whittell and Eshwarappa M, just published by Corporate Watch, people affected by British aid argue that behind the pictures of smiling children and the rhetoric of development lies a different reality that seldom makes the news headlines. They say that, through DFID projects and programmes, their government, land, schools and public services are being taken away from them. As one of the interviewees puts it, "In India, DfID ... [is] behind the push to completely dismantle public systems of health, education, food security, water, electricity, and throw our people completely to the mercy of markets controlled by big capital." According to another interviewee, it is "another agenda to colonise us."
In over 10 lengthy interviews and five short films, people who have suffered from and fought against DfID's aid programmes in India - including teachers, farmers, academics, activists, engineers and journalists – explain why they have resisted or rejected this 'dodgy development' and why it is important that people in Britain do the same.
"They tie you up and burgle your house through the back door," says one of the interviewees, Madhuri Krishnaswammy. "And then arrive at the front door with much fanfare to provide a few sops as 'relief'!"
"Assistance doesn’t mean purchasing my culture," says another interviewee, Abani Baral. "Assistance doesn’t mean encroaching upon my rights or the administration. This is what DfID is doing and this is what we are opposed to."
Professor Anil Sadgopal makes an appeal to the British public and asks, "Would you allow this to be done in your country by the Indian government? If your answer is no, then please use all your resources ... to stop DFID."
As well as the UK, the book and DVD will be distributed in India and other countries that receive British aid, such as Ghana and Iraq, to people similarly affected by it. Neither the films makers nor the publishers have received any funding for the project, and will make no profit from it.
"We travelled across India, independently and without funding," says Richard Whittell and Eshwarappa M, who conducted the interviews and made the films. "We wanted to speak to people affected by British aid. It soon became clear that there was a substantial number of people whose experiences of this aid contrasted sharply with the DFID's publicity, and it is these critical views that are presented in these short films and interviews."
The UK International Development parliamentary committee has recently announced an inquiry into the future of DFID’s programme in India. A memorandum based on the work has been submitted to the committee.